Follow the ivory to get to the root cause of the poaching scourge in Africa
Sharon van Wyk
7 Feb 2014

In his rebuttal of my previous story on ivory poaching and some of the hotly debated statistics currently in use by the scientific and academic community when it comes to elephant numbers, Ken Ferguson displays a fairly typical “I know better than you do” approach (“Statistics will never add up if we keep trying to outgun poachers”, Cape Times, January 8 2014).

It’s sad that in its final edit, my story’s final, pertinent paragraphs were cut. They read: “At the end of the day, ivory poaching is a human problem, created by humans by stimulating the market for ivory out of greed. It’s not a new problem but one we made for ourselves decades ago.

“If you follow the ivory, you get to the root cause of the problem, and that’s the demand for it. Until we attack this problem from the demand side, rather than from the source, we are fighting a losing battle and elephant numbers won’t make a difference, because demand will eventually outstrip supply.”

Ferguson’s response is typical because he seeks to impose his view over an opposing one by using character assassination as his weapon of choice. In my humble, and non-expert opinion, his petty attempt to establish himself as the expert in matters elephantine and myself as the ignoramus sums up everything wrong in African conservation and a major reason why we are steadily losing the battle against poaching. Human ego is the single biggest killer of animals in the world. And I do not think I need a science doctorate to back that sentence up.

I have watched as elephants, and other animals continue to suffer while grown men and women hurl insults at one another in an attempt to gain ground in a territory more feverishly protected than that of any animal.

Make no mistake, the conservation game is as politically charged as an ANC AGM with possibly more gerrymandering and jostling for position. It is a hotbed of intrigue and rivalry filled with a cast list of individuals each wholly convinced of their unassailable right to save animals better than anyone else can and each trying to be the loudest voice in the choir.

I forgive Ferguson his filibustering because this debate is not about me, it’s about trying to save elephants, and essentially, in that respect, he and I are on the same page. I don’t have all of the answers, however, in all my years of reporting on this issue, and also witnessing the horror of elephant slaughter first-hand, I have come to the conclusion that the only way to effectively counter poaching is by targeting the demand for ivory in the markets which drive that demand with no-nonsense, non-diplomatic interventions and by completely banning any trade in it, anywhere on this planet.

The notion that we can control a legalised trade in ivory is founded on the assumption that we can effectively govern ourselves and trust those assigned to govern. This is the biggest flaw in the pro-trade movement – especially here in Africa where corruption, political and financial malfeasance and graft are the rod and staff of governance.

It is also based on the assumption that supply will far exceed demand, a notion that is backed by economic supposition as opposed to hard evidence.

The South African government is vehemently pro-trade and currently pushing for the legalisation of trade in rhino horn, supported by individual stakeholders who stand to profit considerably. No other possible methods of stemming the tide of rhino poaching have been considered.

Should trade in rhino horn be legalised it will open the floodgates for African range states eager to dump their ivory stockpiles. The same African range states suspected of complicity with the illegal trade.

Trade in ivory and rhino horn has been illegal for a number of years, and yet we stand today on the brink of complete disaster where rhino are concerned, and impending doom in the case of the African elephant. We have completely failed to help animals protected by international law and those in power continue to profit from their illegal demise. What makes us think that we can better protect them if those same corrupt individuals can profit from them legally as well?

There are no policies written or yet to be written which can wrestle control of the illegal wildlife trade from the cartels who run it, because those cartels operate with government collusion and involvement in both elephant range states and ivory demand states. If they did not, those same cartels, and the illicit trade, would have been eradicated decades ago.

The sad fact is that money trumps every good intention we, as a species, ever had or will ever have. We can’t be trusted to do what’s right, because our view of what’s right is bought and paid for. And that, I fear, will be both Africa’s and the African elephant’s epitaph.

Endnote: Sharon van Wyk is an award-winning conservation writer and film-maker and works with the Conservation Action Trust